Man standing alone between the trees in the forest.
Alexander Hall/Destination Småland


In Sweden, The Forests Are Alive With Monsters

A new immersive spooky experience explores what’s lurking in the nature of Sweden.

It is almost dusk in the middle of a forest in Sweden when I see her: a beautiful woman with long flowing hair dancing in between trees just far enough away to almost seem like a mirage. Except, I don’t actually see her. The deep-voiced narrator in my earbuds tells me she’s there as part of a short horror audio story I’m listening to titled Kiln. “A milky white hand glimmers and is struck by the moonlight before it returns to the shadows,” the voice warns. “She is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.”

Peering through the thick haze of the afternoon mist, the forest’s rug of moss and yellowing leaves still vibrating from the last rain, it feels possible that she really might be there, lurking in some corner unbeknownst to me. And though I know, or assume, I am alone in this square meter of trees and brush, I still find myself whipping my head round and around in circles, wondering if what I heard is really there, or if it’s just my nerves.

She’s called the huldra, the girl in the story whose role I don’t want to spoil for you, and she’s one of the most familiar mystical entities in Sweden’s folklore tradition. Depending on where you are in the country she has other names, like skogsrå, or tallemaja, which translates to “pine tree Mary.” In Swedish folklore, she occupies a role similar to that of sirens but for the all-consuming depths of the forest: Young, beautiful, and deadly, she has a preternatural eye for young men, whom she gleefully traps in an everlasting curse after they tell her their names.

That is the basis of Kiln, the audio story which makes up a peculiar new travel initiative called Spellbound By Sweden, which was started by the country’s tourism board, Visit Sweden. Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who’s been dubbed the Swedish Stephen King and is the mind behind 2004’s Let The Right One In, the 30-minute audio story can only be experienced in the country itself; it’s geo-restricted to the country’s coordinates (though the restriction will be briefly unlocked Halloween weekend), and is meant to be experienced in the depths of the forest. For Sweden, that means you could listen to the story in 70% of the country, if whatever is lurking there doesn’t find you first.

“Sweden has a unique nature that has spawned a long mythological tradition,” says Nils Persson, the Chief Marketing Officer of Visit Sweden, of the incentive behind the Spellbound initiative. “Some of these characters were evil and could be scary, while others were believed to be more friendly. In the last couple of years, the desire to discover something out of the ordinary has increased, and our aim is to inspire the world to experience something completely different with this initiative.”

Like all oral traditions, Sweden’s folklore is deeply entrenched in the country’s cultural history. It’s detectable in the holiday traditions, artistic traditions, and, most of all, in its geographical landscape. In the southern region Småland, the country’s nature stronghold with over 5,000 lakes and 400 nature reserves, dense swaths of birch and fir tree forests sprouting from carpets of verdant mossy growth look, at a glance, look especially so to be homes for supernatural beings. It’s in this region, in a small patch of land about an hours drive from the closest major city, Jönköping, and smack in the center of the southern tip of the country, where I get my first (hypothetical) glimpse of the huldra.

In Småland, stories are a serious matter. Not just child’s play, they are entwined in the understanding of the region’s lush and serene country-scape. Tales of trolls and dragons effuse from humps of emerald green bog and piles of stones (said to be where a dragon’s treasure is kept), and a pair of crystalline lakes are the remnants of three sisters slain by their unknowing brothers long, long ago. (There used to be three lakes but two have merged; as the story goes, when only one lake is left, the world will end.) Even more exceptional natural phenomena, like Skurugata, a chasmic ravine gored through one forest near the city Eksjö, has a story attached to it: a thief called Tjuva-Jösse once hid there with his gold.

Tine Winther, manager and professional storyteller at The Land Of Legends storytelling museum in Ljungby, Sweden in Småland, says these “stories are a reflection of history,” often offering insight into how people lived way back when, when forests were scary voids to avoid and when a misbehaving child could only be explained through an outsider force like a troll swapping ones baby out with a changeling. They were often scary because they were also lessons.

“In the past, people believed that different creatures lived in the forest,” Persson says. “With this story, we allow people of today to experience what it could be like.”

And the experience is, indeed, a spine-chilling half-hour for newbies like me. While you can’t expect major horror-level frights in the audio story, there is a surprising amount of dread an assertive loud voice in your ear and ominous music can conjure for your senses.

As Kiln reaches its climax, the narrator nearly begins to shout as an instrument creaks louder, a combination that in any situation will activate your flight or fight response. Perhaps the weakest part of the story is that it’s told in second person, which pulls you out of its immersive-ness since there’s no way to match what the narrator is saying. But Lindqvist’s writing, vivid, dramatic, and excessively descriptive, picks up that slack; when he writes about the pack of ghostly dogs chasing after you, their paws shaking the ground beneath you, you can almost feel it.

When it comes to horror stories, Scandinavian folklore — figures like trolls, werewolves, changelings, and versions of the huldra — have always been a staple in the genre. In film, more recent pictures like 2017’s The Ritual, which takes place in a Swedish forest, and Ari Aster’s 2019 critical hit Midsommar have ventured to more directly reckon with Swedish folklore, though both come from American directors. With Kiln, and Spellbound by Sweden, written by an already decorated Swedish author and produced by an entire Swedish team, there’s a sense of reclamation in the narrative — and a willingness to lean into the horror and scarier aspects of the tradition.

“I think it’s quite brave to scare people,” says Cathrine Rydström, a PR & marketing manager of travel agency Destination Smäland, about Kiln and Spellbound. “There are some people who would disagree with that. I think it’s the most special campaign they have done. It’s about nature and it adds more dimension around it.”

Walking back out of the forest following the end of the story, I do find myself noticing more bits of that mystical world hidden just one layer beyond. A piece of tree lichen draping off a tree branch is a strand of hair from a huldra; a tree stump, a place where she might sit. If she is indeed here, just remember to never tell her your name.

Learn more about Spellbound on Visit Sweden.